How much does HR know about an employee's medical treatments?
June 8, 2013 12:45 PM   Subscribe

In a few months I'm going to be having an elective surgery to fix an ongoing medical issue that I'm a bit sensitive about. The HR person at my ~100 person sized company is pleasant but she seems to be careless when discussing private info on the phone. What does she know about any medical treatment I get? Details inside.

The HR person has been at my company for many years. They are very pleasant and professional for the most part, but when on the phone in their office, they get EXTREMELY loud and you can hear every detail of conversation from my cubicle which is ~35 feet away. My coworkers and I have heard this person discuss dollar amounts of contributions to 401ks, details of people going on maternity leave, dates of employee termination, etc. It just seems unprofessional. So my question is two-part: a) am I being off-base that this is unusual and unprofessional? and b) how much would this person know about any medical treatment I receive?
posted by averageamateur to Work & Money (9 answers total)
I think my question to you is - how are you envisioning she would learn about your medical procedure in the first place? The HR staff of your office doesn't have access to your medical records or your insurance. So unless you have expressly told anyone at your office what your surgery is about, she wouldn't even know.

So if you're asking this question because you think she has access to your insurance claims, then no, she doesn't. But if you're asking this question because you've already told someone else at the office what surgery you're having, then that's a different question.

As for her being loud enough to hear - yeah, that's kinda bad. Is there anyone else who's concerned about her actions you could buddy-up with and jointly go to someone higher up about this? Preferably someone whose personal business was audibly discussed within earshot of others, so they can say "look, everyone knows my maternity leave details now because she was doing this".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify: the issue being treated is not work related and I would be out for a week using vacation time.
posted by averageamateur at 1:00 PM on June 8, 2013

In answer to "a)", I do not know if it is unusual, but it is unprofessional. Not only that, it is a violation of federal law.

I have no idea what you can do about it. But I worked for an insurance company for over five years. Information security was a Big Deal and I got annual training in federal laws. Insurance is unusual in that it is both a medical thing and a financial services thing (like banks). So I got annual training regarding both financial laws and HIPAA (health privacy stuff).

Short version: This is extremely not okay.

Though, in practical terms, I have no idea who you would report HR to in order to see this addressed.
posted by Michele in California at 1:01 PM on June 8, 2013

Best answer: Our HR department has access to all medical claims information, because the company is self-insured. So it will depend on how your company structures their benefits.
posted by something something at 1:06 PM on June 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding somethingsomething. There are also other ways they would know -- for example, if they help pay for your deductible.
posted by 3491again at 2:18 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

She may have access to some information. As a boss in the United States, I have been surprised by the amount of information I've been exposed to about staff use of healthcare. It's only been dollar amounts, not the purposes for which the money was spent, but I have never gone looking. I don't know what would be available to me if I did, and I don't know what would be available in your workplace. I don't want to worry you: you are probably okay --- but I wouldn't say it's safe to count on it.

The larger issue is confidentiality in general. It's a good corporate practice for HR people to be kept separate from other staff for exactly this reason: they routinely handle sensitive material. If they can't have offices or be kept away from everyone else, it's normal to have them work alongside others who are similarly required to be discreet: for example, financial and accounting staff, or senior management. If that's not the case in your company and you can hear their conversations, you should flag your discomfort to management. It doesn't sound like the person in question is behaving badly --you say she's professional-- so you don't need to feel like you're rafting her out. It sounds like the problem is a facilities issue: she needs privacy she isn't getting, in order to do her work.
posted by Susan PG at 2:20 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I run our HR at my company and literally have no idea what surgeries/treatments people get unless they specifically tell me about/ask me for billing advice, etc.
posted by OrangeDrink at 3:11 PM on June 8, 2013

Talk to your supervisor about the issue of HR not being adequately confidential; that's really, really unacceptable. If I knew that staff at work heard HR discussing a staff termination or my 401K, I'd have a very large hissy fit.
posted by theora55 at 4:55 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The HR folks I work with all agree that we should basically be in a vault at the bottom of the ocean so no one can hear/see us doing our jobs (which involve all kinds of confidential information.) At the organizational level, my employer even isolates the medical insurance claims from the rest of HR - I only know medical details for people claiming injury, disability, FMLA, and ADA benefits/entitlements, and then only on the initial applications (not the stuff the doctors and insurance share with one another afterwards) - and then only what I need to know (for instance, I couldn't tell you anything about people whose payroll I'm not directly involved with, even if I wanted to, which I do not.)

Definitely speak up about this person's loudness, etc. - she's exposing your employer to an extraordinary amount of legal risk here, and it's entirely possible she doesn't realize she's doing it. It may or may not be something she can control without management help, in any case; people outside of HR (such as the guy who makes office assignments) don't often realize just how important it is for HR to be isolated visually, physically, and aurally. There've been times HR people I know have had to lobby aggressively to avoid sharing office space with public relations staff, for instance: it honestly didn't occur to the relevant manager that this might be a problem (bearing in mind the public relations staff might very well be getting interviewed by the press in this same space!)

Oh... and as a collective group (and as individuals, in smaller organizations) HR people have access to more than enough information to cause a disaster or tremendous embarrassment for our employees. I take this responsibility extremely seriously; as far as I'm concerned, an HR person who doesn't shouldn't be in any job even remotely related to it, and any manager who doesn't accommodate HR's responsibility to protect confidential information doesn't belong in management at all. If your management is blasé about this when you do bring it to their attention, I recommend finding a different place to work.
posted by SMPA at 5:29 PM on June 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

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